Golfer who cares offers vital links for missing kids

June 01, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

POTOMAC -- She was a year old when her parents split up. Her father abducted her before custody was settled. They disappeared. No trace. A year went by. Two. The police ran out of leads. The center for missing children sent out her picture. No trace. Four years went by. Six. Seven.

Then Tim Simpson put her picture on his golf bag at the Masters this year. He is a 35-year-old tour regular, winner of more than $3 million in his career, and at all of his tournaments this year he is putting a picture of a missing child on his bag. A local case. A smiling face.

It isn't a story for cynics. Simpson is just one of those genuine souls. His daughter almost died at birth, and it rattled his heart. He went looking for a cause. His agent heard about the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Now, he puts pictures on his bag.

He remembers exactly where he was when he heard that the girl whose picture he had displayed at the Masters had been found.

"I'd just hit my tee ball on the seventh hole of the pro-am at the Byron Nelson Classic," Simpson said the other day at the Kemper Open. "They sent someone out onto the course to tell me they found her. It shook me up. Just a great, great feeling."

Please understand this. The girl had been missing eight years, and Simpson puts her picture on his bag, and a tip comes in five days later. The girl was living in Houston. Someone made an anonymous call to the center's 800 number. The police moved in. The girl didn't even know she had a mother.

"We can't say for sure that there's a correlation between Tim's using her picture and her being found, but it sure looks like it," said Ernie Allen, president of the center.

The picture on Simpson's bag this week is of a girl from Baltimore. Her name is Shannon Lee Potter, and she has been missing since 1984. She was 13 years old and lived with her mother in Parkville, and she left home one night through a bedroom window, leaving a note. Her family thought she'd go stay with her father or someone else in the family. No one heard from her.

"It's a real mystery," Ernie Allen said. "There is a strong indication of foul play. As a rule, we've been giving Tim our tougher cases, the ones in which we're desperate for leads.

"We operate on the premise that there's always someone out there who knows where these kids are, or what happened to them. If Tim Simpson can be the catalyst to get that person to act, then God bless him, he's done a wonderful thing."

The center has worked 28,000 cases in seven years, Allen said, and "played some role" in solving more than 60 percent, working with local police departments and the FBI.

Allen said there is an erroneous perception that many of the kids are dead. "They're usually in someone's neighborhood or classroom," he said. "What Tim is doing is help give hope to families across the country."

Simpson never knows much about the stories behind the pictures. The people at the center select the cases. Simpson just gets the pictures in the mail and puts them on his bag. They're all heartbreakers.

"I want to be different," Simpson said. "At the end of my career, I want people to say not just that Tim Simpson was a hell of a player, but also a good man. I've been fortunate out here [on the tour]. I wanted to give something back, and something significant. If I can help reunite a child with her parents, there's nothing better than that."

He is balding, squarish, Georgia-raised, a late-blooming star on the tour. He discovered his putting touch after years of anonymity and shot into the top 10 in 1989 and 1990, winning three tournaments along the way.

He has gone backward in 1991, beginning this week ranked 55th on the money list. There are reasons. His brother-in-law was murdered in January. A resort Simpson was representing didn't pay him, and now he's in court for the first time. He lost his concentration, and his swing got fouled up.

"It's been one thing after another, just a horrible year," he said. "I got really down for a while. Things are getting better now. The one positive thing that's been happening has been the thing with the kids."

He gives a couple of interviews a day about it and can barely play a hole without hearing from someone. "The other players, tournament officials, people in the gallery -- they're always saying they think this is great," he said. "On an average day, I hear a hundred comments."

Every week now, the center gets tips resulting from the picture on the bag and calls from desperate parents asking that their children's pictures be used. The parents of Shannon Lee Potter have moved from Baltimore and aren't interested in the publicity surrounding Simpson. But thousands of people will see their daughter's picture this week.

"We know there's someone out there who knows where she is or what happened to her," Allen said. "We just want to reach as many people as we can. Tim Simpson is doing a wonderful thing toward that goal. All it takes is one person seeing the picture. The one right person."

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